Backcountry Skiing the Birthday Bowls

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Prepared for a day of backcountry skiingBy Luke Sisler

Clicking out of my skis on the notch road I replay the backcountry skiing run in my head. It was a bit after 4 p.m. and I had just finished work, hopped on the big quad at Spruce Peak, just before closing. It got me most of the way up to help drop me in the trees on the north side of Smugglers’ Notch. I now had to shoulder my skis and walk a few hundred vertical feet to the high point and get myself back to the house Sisler Builders is building at the base of Stowe Mountain Resort, where I parked my truck nine-and-a-half hours earlier.

Powder skiing in the backcountryIt was a good day. I watched the snow pile up, but I had things to get done. So, I put in eight hours of mechanicals, framing changes, light fixtures, and creating functional art. All the while planning my descent. They call the backcountry skiing area in Stowe the Birthday Bowls. All you do is go up the big quad at Spruce Peak and drop down the backside. It is a committing feeling walking out the gates and dropping away from civilization of a guaranteed lift to the top. So, most people don’t take the drop.

I enjoy it though. The walk up is therapeutic, the long runout is more time on skis. And in my opinion, more time on skis is good. This run down was exceptionally good. I had solid memories of a few quick face shots, a sweeping turn through pine trees, and hop down the short end of a cliff. The pow was soft, fluffy, and floaty. What more could I want?

measuring snowThere are some gnarly features in Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch State Park. I aim to explore most of them, some other places in the greater Appalachians, too. Skiing in the backcountry, however, is serious business. I know Vermont has real mountains and Mansfield is one. In the past, people have died skiing the notch. I do not plan on being another of that statistic. My experience skiing in more documented avalanche terrain has taught me the way to avoid it is knowledge of terrain, respect for the mountain, realization of bigger things than yourself, and proper planning.

A few jubilant and committed pow turns into my descent it occurred to me that I am alone, and an injury here would be a real chore. My next few turns were a bit more reserved. I hit my groove and had a blast avoiding all the tracks I could. I love fresh snow and that particular winter was exceptional in that regard. This was the third of three storms that gave us three feet each. Quite the privilege!

No doubt my previous winter as a night janitor for Jackson Hole provided more time on skis, but pow skiing does happen in Stowe. It is here for us to go get. I’m happy to get it after a productive day at work or whenever I can.

Luke Sisler is a site supervisor for Sisler Builders, and an avid skier, hockey player, and mountain biker.

European Inspired Mountain Chalet

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European Inspired Mountain Chalet-summer exteriorWhile traveling in the French and Swiss Alps, the owners of this European inspired mountain chalet became captivated by the rustic charm of the over 200-year-old chalets they had seen there. They perused numerous books about chalet design, becoming both well informed and even more enthusiastic with the building style. Working with architect Paul Robert Rousselle of Stowe and Steve Sisler of Sisler Builders, they incorporated design cues from traditional chalet construction, their own carefully cultivated theme ideas, and state-of-the-art energy usage desires to bring their unique European inspired mountain chalet to fruition for the 21st century and beyond.

European Inspired Chalet-north side windowsThe couple and their three children, ages 13, 18, and 20, are originally from Long Island. They moved to Stowe for its quality of life, easy access to sports, and the outdoor activities they enjoy. They rented a home while beginning the process of designing their house, finding an architect, and deciding on a builder. After meeting with Steve and checking with a variety of reference sources they chose Sisler Builders. Steve had done similar chalet-style construction, and they felt that besides his reputation for perfection and integrity, he and his team were well suited for the job. They also knew that Sisler Builders is committed to building highly energy efficient homes, a priority for them.

European Inspired Chalet-living roomEuropean Inspired Chalet-dining room view

Beyond being committed to the chalet aesthetic, the couple’s primary objectives were an open and functional layout, natural flow, and ease of use. They wanted to maintain a timeless look, so the house never felt dated. They also wanted to take advantage of the fantastic sloping site, situating the house so that it made the most of the jaw-dropping views of Stowe’s ski trails. The floor-to-ceiling windows all across the main living areas did the trick for this last desire!

“There was a lot of collaboration during the building process,” said the husband. “Every square inch of the house was discussed with the architect and builder, weighing all factors of design, engineering, and the actual building process.”

Energy efficiency

The nearly 4,500-square-foot structure is extremely air tight and energy efficient. It is heated with geothermal wells connected to electric heat pumps, which are partially powered by photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. A wood stove, cleverly connected to duct work that is part of the air conditioning system, allows heat to be distributed throughout the home, instead of being concentrated to the area close to the woodstove. The structure tested out at 0.82 ACH50, which means it has a nearly Passive House air exchange level, and is remarkably air tight. It has radiant heat tubing embedded in the concrete slabs of both the lower and first floor levels. This is a well-thought-out system, as the heat pumps can readily produce water at just the proper temperature for optimal radiant heating. With the exceedingly low natural air-exchange rate, a mechanical heat recovery air exchange system was mandatory.

Sisler Builders optimized the amount of insulation installed by computer modeling the front-end cost of different thicknesses of insulation versus the operating cost associated with those thicknesses. With this proper engineering and holistic mechanical system approach, the owners have found that the wood stove heats the entire house, and are ecstatic about the inexpensive heating costs and comfort they feel year round.

European Inspired Chalet-dining room European Inspired Chalet-bedroom

Staying local

European Inspired Chalet-kitchenLocally sourced materials strongly influenced the house design. A significant contributor to its look and feel was the use of native hemlock beams and paneling that were procured and milled nearby. Sisler Builders took special care to purchase and sequence their installation in order to facilitate proper drying of the wood. The wife’s favorite aspect of the interior is the mix of rustic and modern design themes throughout the house, which were achieved with materials such as the native hemlock beams juxtaposed with refined tile and crisp sheetrock detailing, finished in striking colors.

The husband’s favorite aspect is the kitchen, which he says is the house’s focal point. “I like to cook. I wanted a kitchen that is functional. We put a lot of thought into multiple work stations and the layout works well for us. I like all the systems and finishes we integrated.”

European Inspired Chalet-winter exteriorThe owners would have preferred to take a year up front to flesh out the house’s design, but they did not have that luxury, so decisions were made almost daily during the building process. “The project manager, Matt Rouleau was brilliant,” the husband said. “He coordinated everything and it was a pleasure working with him. He is extraordinary. Our experience with Sisler Builders has been great. They stood behind everything they did and we continue to have good relationships with Steve and Matt and all the carpenters and subcontractors we met through the process. We’re very happy with our Vermont chalet.”

European Inspired Chalet-aerial

What is ACH50? All You Need to Know is Right Here

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The last five houses that Sisler Builders completed have all tested with ACH50 less than .85. But what does that mean? What is ACH50? Get ready for some physics!

What is ACH50?What is ACH50?

ACH50 is the abbreviation for air changes per hour at 50 pascals (Pa) pressure differential. It is how we measure the energy efficiency of a house. It is the number of times the air volume in a building changes per hour at 50 Pa of pressure. During a blower door test we depressurize a building to negative 50 Pa pressure, with regard to the outside air pressure. We accomplish this by continuously exhausting a measured volume of air from the building with the blower door, while simultaneously measuring the pressure differential from inside to out. We adjust the bower until we reach our target pressure differential of negative 50 Pa, and then record the volume of air being exhausted to accomplish this in cubic feet per minute (CFM). This measurement is called the CFM50 of the building and quantifies the air leakage of the structure being tested. The higher the CFM50, the leakier the building.

What is ACH50?CFM50 is the building performance standard used almost universally to quantify building air leakage, but it is not a very useful number for evaluating how “tight or leaky” a building is, unless we know a little more about the structure. For example, a giant warehouse may be quite tight, but have a high CFM50 compared to a small house that is quite leaky, because of the enormous discrepancy in the volumes of the two buildings. In order to compare the relative “leakiness” of separate buildings we need to account for this potential difference in structures’ volumes. To do this we use both the CFM50 and volume to calculate what is called the ACH50 – air changes per hour at 50 Pa pressure differential – of the structure. This number indicates the number of times in one hour the total volume of air in the entire building will be exhausted through the blower door when it is maintaining -50 Pa pressure differential with regard to the outside air pressure.

The CFM50 tells us how many cubic feet of air are being exhausted from a building every minute to reach -50 Pa. To calculate ACH50 values we multiply the CFM50 number by 60 minutes per hour to determine how many cubic feet per hour are being exhausted. Now we divide this product by the total volume of the building in cubic feet and we know how many times this volume will be exhausted in on hour at this pressure. Voila. The ACH50 values!

A building’s ACH50 number indicates how tightly a building was originally constructed (or later air-sealed) and is an excellent gauge for comparing leakiness between buildings. The lower the ACH50 values, the tighter the building. Vermont’s residential energy code currently requires new houses to have an ACH50 of 3.0 or less. By comparison, many older houses we’ve tested have ACH50 numbers of 10 or more, and some have been much, much higher. Today’s high-performance houses typically have ACH50s closer to 1.0.  The last five houses that Sisler Builders completed all have ACH50 of less than 0.85.

Meet Sisler Builders’ Custom Woodworking Division

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Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
Claro walnut coffee table.

Seth Allen and Glen Waller make up the core of Sisler Builders’ custom woodworking division. Allen was hired in early 2012 as a carpenter and soon moved into the wood shop to build furniture for Sisler Builders’ clients. Shortly after, Waller was brought on to help collaborate on a large order of custom furniture that included three separate pieces—an architecturally designed, high-end walnut master bed with AV cabinets, drawers, and an oversized headboard; a claro walnut (Juglans hindsii) coffee table; and a black walnut (Juglans californica) dining room table. Sisler Builders’ custom woodworking division was launched!

Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
Custom kitchen shelving.

“We are not set up for high volume,” notes Waller. “We do specialty things, such as master vanities, full kitchens with interiors made of poplar, not plywood, for non-toxic houses, built-in cabinets, and furniture.”

The woodworking shop is modest, completely kitted out with Powermatic tools. The only element that is off-site is a spray room. “We do mostly natural oil finishes. A lot of present-day finishing systems only require one or two coats, so we rarely need a spray room,” Waller adds.

Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
Glen Waller and Seth Allen doing their thing in Sisler Builders’ woodworking shop.

Waller and Allen both became interested in woodworking when they were kids. Waller’s father was an aerospace engineer with a woodworking shop at home. This in itself was enough to inspire young Waller to take woodworking classes throughout his school years. He also enjoys metal fabrication. He moved to Vermont from California, and prior to joining Sisler Builders owned a custom door-making business in Moscow, Vermont.

Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
Cozy reading nook.

Allen modestly claims he received his own training from the school of hard knocks, but he also attended Vermont Technical College’s architectural design and engineering program, as well as wooden boat school. After graduating from high school he worked for a high-end construction company in Southern Vermont, where he built homes from the ground up, getting involved in all aspects of building.

Allen later moved to NYC to chase his girlfriend, who he eventually married. “I didn’t want to build houses and lug tools, so I started working in wood shops in New York City and that is where my love for furniture and woodshops began,” says Allen. Woodworking also runs in his family. His father owned a construction business and his father-in-law is Johannes Michelsen, a world-renown wood turner known for his amazing wooden hats.

Most of the custom woodworking projects come from Sisler Builder clients who are having new houses built or major renovations done. “Our clients don’t usually want to stick with a set design. They want the flexibility to make changes along the way,” Allen explains. This gives Sisler Builders the ability to achieve anything their clients dream up. So instead of contracting out furniture and custom projects, he and Waller do the custom work in house.

Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
A miniature prototype of a custom bench that can be raised and lowered according to snow depth.

“We get some interesting projects,” says Waller. “We recently did an outdoor bench that can be raised and lowered, according to snow depth, using a marriage of steel and wood to create a gear mechanism that is operated manually with a hand crank.” Waller was able to employ his metal fabricating skills to design the gearing.

Sisler Builders' custom woodworking division
Staircase treads and railing.

Other creative projects the two have completed are a suspended outdoor shower enclosure made from a reclaimed hot tub, a shuffle board table, a bamboo-cladded front door assembly, and a custom live-edge Douglas fir bench.

“We can do almost anything custom,” says Waller. “If we can’t do some aspects of a the project we will find someone we respect who can, but for the most part we do everything in house.”

 

Custom Cabinet Displays Stowe’s Skiing History

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Sisler Builders of Stowe, Vt., collaborated with Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum to create a cabinet that displays, in a unique way, Stowe’s skiing history and artifacts from the museum’s collection. The cabinet is located in the Adventure Center at Spruce Peak, where visitors can walk right up, view the items at eye level, and get a sense of the history and evolution of Alpine skiing.

Stowe's Skiing HistorySeth Allen, custom woodworking division manager for Sisler Builders, said it took about four weeks to design and build the cabinet and another week to install it. Master woodworker Glen Waller finalized measurements and the design, and built it with Craig Gants and Allen. “Everything was built with blind fasteners. You can’t see any screws or hanging devices,” Allen explains.

The team took measurements of each individual ski item and built “boxes” sized precisely to each item’s dimensions. Like assembling a puzzle, they organized the boxes to create a final display measuring approximately 20 feet long by 8 feet high. They used prefinished maple and whitewashed raw maple plywood, with exquisite attention to detail. The museum provided materials, while Sisler Builders donated the design, knowledge, and craftsmanship to create the custom display case.

Stowe's Skiing History    Stowe's Skiing History

Owner Steve Sisler, a longtime skier and ski history enthusiast, was happy to donate his company’s expertise to build the cabinet for the Vermont Ski & Snowboard Museum so that visitors to Stowe Mountain Resort could enjoy a different perspective of Alpine skiing.

For more information contact Sisler Builders or call 802-253-5672.

 

Air Source Heat Pumps – Renewable Resource Heating

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Air source heat pumps and ground source heat pumps are gaining a foothold in the construction industry for their energy efficiency and cost effectiveness. For decades, Sisler Builders installed propane (and sometimes oil) heating equipment as a matter of course. The advent of heat-pump technology and, to a lesser extent, rising fuel prices, has changed all of that.

For the last few years, Sisler Builders installed air source or ground source heat pumps in almost all of their buildings. The technology for heat pumps, which are essentially air conditioners that run in reverse, has improved drastically in the last 20 years. On average, the systems are now four times more efficient than traditional electric resistance heat, operate well (even in Vermont winters) and cost less to operate than propane or oil.

In 2013 Sisler Builders installed air source heat pumps in one of their apartment buildings in Waterbury, Vermont. It replaced an old and outdated oil boiler. The annual heating and hot water costs of the building have gone from about $8,000 to $2,500 annually! And, since almost all of the electricity comes from a rooftop solar array, the system is much better for the environment, too.

To learn more about air source and ground source heat pumps, go to GreenBuildingAdvisor.com and search for Nick Sisler. Nick is co-founder and lead engineer at Ekotrope, a building energy software and consulting company. This essay is adapted from an article in Green Building Advisor.

Celebrating Sisler Builders 30 Year Anniversary

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Sisler Builders 30 Year AnniversarySisler Builders 30 year anniversary. What a milestone! As I reflect on this achievement, I am proud and humbled by what an idea has turned into. President and Vermonter Calvin Coolidge once commented, “…Persistence alone is Omnipotent,” a phrase which has consistently motivated me, especially during the tough moments. The upcoming years motivate me even more.

The promise of our talented people, the ongoing technological progression charging into the construction field, and the new palette of building materials all make this an exciting time to be a builder. I look toward the future with the same sense of wonder, trepidation, and anticipation as I did when I embarked on this journey.

I’ve been thinking lately about the “connectedness” of things. Our company, now 30 employees strong, became what it is by honoring basic principles that apply in many endeavors. Whether it’s coaching or competing, being a parent or building a home, the values of respect, preparation, challenge, and follow-through work every time. I’m struck, looking back, by how similar the obstacles and outcomes can be, at the hockey arena, the dinner table, or the building site.

Generally I’m not one for mottos or mantras, but if pressed I would say we endeavor to build efficiently, with a long view, utilizing materials and techniques that champion that view. We value respect for people, quality products, and the planet.

Sisler Builders 30 Year AnniversaryRespect for people

I see a good example in the recent economic downturn. At Sisler Builders, we made it a priority to honor the commitments made to and by our employees. During the worst housing market in several decades, we adapted our work to keep our entire staff not just employed, but continuing to contribute to their families, their communities, to the recovery, and to a resilient business. One of our carpenters described the changes in his commute from a nearby town – from bustling, to sparse, to lonely. At its worst, he felt that he was the only one from his community heading anywhere. Now, the roads are filling again, but I know the driver of one silver Sisler Builders pick-up appreciates the drive a little more and that means a lot to me.

Just like our employees, loyalty on the playing field comes from investing in the team when times are tough. Below zero morning practices at the old outdoor Jackson Ice Arena forged some great teams, built character and life skills that endure for all participants.

Sisler Builders 30 Year AnniversaryRespect for quality product

A local theater group recently performed “It’s a Wonderful Life.” There’s a line where Pa Bailey explains to his son, who wants to do greater things, “You know, George, I feel that in a small way we are doing something important. Satisfying a fundamental urge. It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof and walls and fireplace, and we’re helping him get those things in our shabby little office.” I don’t find our office shabby, but I do find the same sense of satisfaction Pa expressed. We’ve been privileged to have been chosen to build and remodel many awesome homes for many wonderful people. Yet I believe the home includes so much more than a roof and walls and fireplace. It provides peace and security, identity, self-expression, family, community—attributes I know our buildings will deliver for decades.

Respect for planet and future

How we build is critical to how we will live, and it is for the long term. We are committed to building with respect for the planet. Sustainability includes not just energy use and consumption but emissions and our overall footprint. We build aware of the life cycle analysis of the resources we employ. We will always seek to optimize our people, through training and support, the technology we use and install and in creating custom living solutions with style, quality, and respect.

From here, we will build on the values we have forged and embodied. I plan to help guide our talented people to continue to live up to the high standards we have set and delivered in our first 30 years and raise the bar, as energy issues demand, for the coming decades.

Thanks for your support, past and future!

Steve Sisler, Owner

Communication in the Construction Industry

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It’s a well-known fact that good communication in the construction industry is crucial to a project’s success. This couldn’t be truer than in our business, where the success of each project depends heavily on the careful management of hundreds if not thousands of small details. Having the right materials and equipment, the right crew and subcontractors, and the right architect and other professionals are very important, but it’s the coordination of these various people and elements that typically make or break a project.

I tell our people that they should never be afraid to ask a question or to speak up if they don’t understand something, or if they see something that doesn’t look quite right. I try to do the same in my own dealings with our customers, their architects, and everyone else involved in our work. It’s a policy that has kept us out of trouble and allowed us to grow our business and to continually expand our skill set.

Good communication in the construction industry includes everyone

The owners, the architect, structural engineer, landscape architect, and many of the  vendors for a specific project may be new to us. By creating efficient, open lines of communication, we are able to gain the owner’s trust and confidence and to reduce the stress of all involved.

On one project we were challenged to explore and utilize new structural techniques and new and different approaches to custom door construction, timber framing details, main stair construction, and interior trim detailing. It felt good to be pushed; to demonstrate the extent of our skills and to build upon them, something we never would have been able to do without the confidence of all involved. I like to think that our enthusiasm for pushing the envelope is part of our company culture.

Custom homes, large or small, often contain fresh sets of challenges to make our lives interesting, and after 30+ years we have a pretty good base of experience to help us make sense of the new challenges and opportunities that each project presents.

Listening is half of good communication

Of course, the other key to good communication is being a good listener. We try very hard to listen to our customers and their design teams and to understand their needs. Again, this not only helps us to avoid mistakes, but it’s also led to some very interesting opportunities for us. Our new custom woodworking division is a perfect example of this. In recent years we’ve seen a growing interest among our customers in things like custom built-ins, freestanding furniture, and other intricate woodworking applications. The woodworking division allows us to meet this need while broadening our overall skill set and offering a creative outlet for some of our most talented people. And besides, it’s FUN!

Contemporary Stowe Mountain House

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Contemporary Stowe mountain houseDoug and Toni Gordon had a vision for building a contemporary Stowe mountain house. They wanted something that would fit with the reasons they love Stowe—mountains, wilderness, nature—blend in with the surroundings, and be modern and energy efficient

Gordon, who works in money management in Boston, took their vision for a contemporary Stowe mountain house to Steve Sisler. What did the Stowe-area builder make of this? Dreams. That’s how many conversations begin with Sisler. “We try to create synergy between the owner, architect, and builder to make ideas come to reality,” Steve says.

Gordon and Boston architect Marcus Gleysteen met with Steve and ultimately selected Sisler Builders to build the 8,500-square-foot country contemporary Stowe mountain house. Gordon says of his choice of builders, “Steve certainly had the experience, and then some, having built some other homes that had a similar look, feel, and magnitude of what we were after.”

But there was more. “Steve helped ground the whole project. He’s highly intelligent and practical—but not, frankly, too practical. Because you want really nice stuff. Steve understood that.”

The Gordon house combines elegance and innovation, and uses a mix of local and imported materials, while featuring state-of-the-art energy efficiency. Outside, the Champlain valley stone veneer and the Douglas-fir timbers have the feel of a ski lodge. Inside, giant windows are oriented toward the mountains, bringing the grandeur and beauty of the landscape into the living room.

Contemporary Stowe mountain house Contemporary Stowe mountain house

The master bedroom is connected to the house via a bridge over a dry river. Downstairs is all about fun: there is a TV and spacious rec room with bleacher seats and cozy nooks for the three Gordon children to hang out.

The kitchen has large concrete countertops beneath cathedral ceilings clad in Douglas-fir and surrounded by warm natural-hued southern yellow pine cabinetry. A stone fireplace rises two stories and features an interplay of Woodbury granite and timbers. It’s striking, but not too massive.

Contemporary Stowe mountain house Contemporary Stowe mountain houseSteve explains that there is a story behind the fireplace. He, Marcus, and mason Matt Parisi traveled to the defunct Woodbury quarry, the oldest quarry in the country, to pick out the perfect slab of granite for the lintel—the large stone over the firebox. As they spent an afternoon hiking around the quarry, balancing different stones on each other, they sent picture messages to Doug to get his real-time input. The end result is a fireplace that is a striking centerpiece of the house.

“I love the fireplace,” Doug Gordon says about his favorite detail, then adds, “I love the bridge to the master bedroom. And I love seeing down the valley from the bedroom.”

A dining room table made of reclaimed American walnut with ebony inlays, complete with old nail holes, was another Sisler Builders creation, as were a number of built-ins and custom cabinets.

Contemporary Stowe mountain house Contemporary Stowe mountain house

Steve stands in the entryway, which features a beautiful granite staircase, and points to the inviting and airy view into the living room. The plans originally called for a wall that would have blocked this view, until Steve proposed an alternative that allowed light in. It was one of many on-the-fly design changes that required close communication.

“I enjoy a team approach with the owner and architect where we all have a willingness to share,” says Steve. “I’ll put my ideas out there whenever I see a way to make a project work better.”

Contemporary Stowe mountain house“We made very significant changes as it was going, based on conversations with Steve,” adds Gordon. “Neither Steve nor our architect were shy in presenting alternatives.” Regarding the re-designed entry, “We all couldn’t be happier,” says Gordon. “It’s exactly what I was looking for in an entrance.”

Eighteen months after they conceived of their dream home, Doug and Toni Gordon and their three kids moved into their new contemporary Stowe mountain home. “It was a wonderful process,” reflects Gordon. “I never felt concerned that the project was going to weave off course. Steve kept me totally in the loop and he appreciated and acknowledged our feedback. There was a very healthy interaction. He kept us on task, but he also built excitement. It wasn’t a job for us, it was an exciting process.”

“At end of day,” muses Gordon, “our favorite part of the house is that we love the property. The house and the view all fit so well. You have this vast open view outside and the stone and woodwork inside. You get that feeling that you are in Vermont. You feel that you are up in the mountains.”